TAMPA (FOX 13) - It started out as a civil rights battle in a Tampa courtroom, and now a cell phone password might be a defendant’s key to freedom.
A judge threw William Montanez behind bars for failing to unlock his phones Thursday, which wasn’t how Montanez or his attorney expected their day in court to end.
"Basically, my client has been denied his liberty today without due process," said attorney Patrick Leduc.
To understand how Montanez got here, we go back to June 21. Montanez was on the road when suddenly he got pulled over for not properly yielding.
He wouldn’t allow cops to search his car, so a drug-sniffing dog was brought in. A small amount of marijuana was allegedly found, and cops asked to search his cell phones.
Again, Montanez said no, so detectives got a warrant -- which brought us to this constitutional challenge in court.
Leduc says cops are on a fishing expedition.
"There is no information that the state can show, until I can challenge the warrant itself, that says, ‘Hey, what’s on these two cell phones are directly related to a possession of misdemeanor marijuana,’" argued Leduc.
Prosecutor Tony Falcone countered, arguing the warrant is lawful. "I think it’s appropriate the court order the defendant to show cause.”
After several minutes of vigorous arguments, Judge Gregory Holder ruled cops could go through the cell phones. So out came the phones from the evidence bag, but Montanez said the two phones are new and he couldn’t remember the passwords to unlock them.
"I don't know the code, sir,” he stated.
Judge Holder then had Montanez try to unlock the second cell phone, but it was the same result.
So the judge found him in civil contempt and threw him in jail.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled law enforcement must get a warrant to search cell phones in most cases.
Leduc says what happened to Montanez could happen to any of us.
"If they arrest you for anything -- whether it’s drugs, guns, you name it -- and an electronic device is nearby, they can get a search warrant and search it. And if you don't provide that information to search it, to unlock, because you want to keep the information private, we'll put you in jail," said Leduc.
Judge Holder also ruled if Montanez suddenly remembers his passwords then he will be released from jail. Otherwise he could spend up to six months locked up.